Programs with as sturdy of a foundation as the Lafayette football team enjoys tend not to sweat the departure of star players.
Virginia Tech freshman Hezekiah Grimsley was not quite the typical star player — Rams head coach Andy Linn believes him to be the best all-around player in at least the last 20 years for Lafayette. Grimsley was a dynamic receiver and return man, and an all-state defensive back whose high school legend will likely grow as he finds success in Blacksburg.
Nevertheless, it's business as usual for the Rams this season despite having to replace 13 total starters, mostly on defense. Two years ago, Cheyton Pine replaced program linchpin Brendan McGinty at quarterback. And last year, Lafayette entered the preseason without Pine, now a sophomore linebacker at Pitt.
It's reloading time again.
"The next man is up and we just go from there," senior Armonii Burden said, "work as hard as we did last year and go farther than we did last year."
Last year included a fifth consecutive Bay Rivers District title and a trip to the Group 4A semifinals against Dinwiddie High, which went on to lose in the championship game at Zable Stadium to Salem High.
The Rams will look to increase their Bay Rivers winning streak to 43 games on Sept. 7 at home against Smithfield. An intriguing non-district home opener against Norcom High of Portsmouth will come first on Aug. 31 after a final scrimmage Aug. 17 against Chancellor.
With Grimsley, both starting running backs and three of four starting linebackers all gone from last season, might there be a drop-off in performance?
"I think this is the year everyone expects us to go out and lose three games," Linn said. "I don't see that happening. I would be shocked if we were to go out there and lose three games."
Burden, who recently committed to Navy, will lead the defense at defensive end along with 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive tackle Elijah Washington and linebacker Jack Erwin in front of an inexperienced secondary.
Erwin, a University of Richmond lacrosse recruit, believes this defense has similar intangible ingredients to the one that powered the Rams to the 2014 3A championship game.
"Even with us losing kids," Erwin said, "there's a lot of kids that have stepped up and hit the weight room and done what they've needed to do to get to a point where they can compete at a high level."
Linn said Burden can be one of the most dominant defensive players in the district if he plays to his potential. Last year, he finished with 88 tackles and five sacks.
Juniors Trey Canady, Josh Coley and E.J. Green will join Erwin at linebacker.
Erwin and Burden will also be crucial on offense with Erwin at tight end and Burden in the backfield. Burden, 6-2 and weighing in over 200 pounds, is lighter this year and should play a more prominent role in the offense along with junior running back Dea-mario Tyler.
The offense will be fueled by an experienced offensive line that lost only Wyoming recruit Dexter Klock and includes captains Gavin Byron and Seth Osborne.
Senior Cesar Ward returns at quarterback having added about 20 pounds to his 5-11 frame.
"He knows the system," Linn said of Ward. "His timing is great."
T.J. Epps, Ish Roy and Mike Rodgers will be Ward's top targets at receiver and Roy will also handle the kicking duties.
Running back Leighton Holm joins Erwin, Burden, Byron, and Osborne as captains for a program that annually enters the season with the same goal: win the last game.
"Lafayette football is just a winning tradition," Ward said. "I don't see any shortage of that this year…. Success is a state championship, nothing less. You can't settle for anything less if you want to go far."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.